For employers, it remains a challenge to shift mindsets on this emotive and sensitive subject, the team from Linklaters, Laure de Panafieu, Head of Asia Employment & Incentives; Shang Ren Koh, Managing Associate; and, Jeremy Tan, Associate, points out.
In his 2021 National Day Rally speech, PM Lee Hsien Loong highlighted that over time the Government would continue to tighten the criteria for EP and S passes. Whilst it is unclear how such tightening measures will be implemented; PM Lee’s remarks are consistent with the Government’s ongoing efforts to heighten scrutiny on work pass applications and strengthen the Singaporean core of the workforce.
Other recent measures introduced by the Ministry of Manpower include:
- Raising the qualifying salary requirement for EP and S passes (in fact, the qualifying salary for EPs was raised twice in 2020 alone);
- Considering employers’ treatment of local professionals, managers, executives, and technicians (PMETs) when evaluating their work pass applications;
- Extending the Fair Consideration Framework’s job advertising requirement to S pass applications and doubling the job advertising duration from 14 to 28 days;
- Placing employers with discriminatory hiring practices on a Watchlist and subjecting their work pass applications to greater scrutiny;
- Updating the tripartite advisory on retrenchment to highlight the need for employers to maintain a strong Singaporean core when carrying out retrenchment exercises; and
- Requiring dependant pass holders to obtain a work pass (instead of a letter of consent) to work in Singapore.
Most notably, PM Lee also announced that the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) guidelines on anti-discrimination will be “enshrined” in law to give the fair employment watchdog more teeth to tackle workplace discrimination.
The intention is also to establish a tribunal to hear discrimination claims, similar to the Employment Claims Tribunal that was set up in 2016 to hear wage-related disputes and wrongful dismissal complaints.
Whilst the current framework provides some measures of accountability, the introduction of anti-discrimination legislation will provide a more effective channel for employees to challenge employers with discriminatory employment practices and drive greater accountability within organisations.
This wide range of measures will likely address locals’ concerns regarding competition with foreigners for workplace opportunities which have been intensified by the economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A recent study released by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) found that 43.6% of the 2,000-odd Singapore respondents said they believed immigration increased unemployment.
Although most Singapore respondents were open to foreigners coming into Singapore, they believed the numbers should be within strict limits enforced by the state.
The acute need for Singapore, as an international hub, to remain open and connected to the world, gives rise to a delicate balancing act. An overly restrictive foreign manpower policy would erode Singapore’s ability to attract the best global talents and foreign investments and consequently dampen economic growth and reduce job opportunities locally.
In his ministerial statement on globalisation, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung emphasised that whilst there was greater competition from foreign PMEs in an open economy, this was not a zero-sum game – “By combining and complementing local and foreign expertise, we can attract more investments and create many more good jobs and career choices for Singaporeans”. He also cited statistics to show that the growth rate of local PMEs was higher than that of EP holders.
Interestingly, the annual Population in Brief report showed that Singapore’s population shrank 4.1% between June 2020 and June 2021 to 5.45 million, largely due to the drop in non-residents and foreign employment, amid travel restrictions and uncertain economic conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Implications for employers
Notwithstanding cogent economic arguments and objective figures, the challenge remains to shift mindsets on this emotive and sensitive subject and focus employers’ attention on building a diverse and talented workforce to serve the global market and compete on the world stage.
In this context, organisations should review their hiring process, framework for staff progression and remuneration, grievance handling procedures, and diversity, equality, and fair opportunities policies, with a view to either implementing or improving current processes in line with the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices and other best-practice standards.
Importantly, these are matters on which the authorities may request background information when investigating allegations of unfair or discriminatory employment practices and which may impact the severity of sanctions imposed.
When hiring foreigners on EP or S Pass, organisations should keep written records (contemporaneous ideally) of all candidates whose profiles are reviewed and, as the case may be, interviewed, and the reason(s) for them failing the interview process where applicable.
Employers should also ensure that the information provided by any applicant, foreigners and Singaporeans alike, is accurate, including making further inquiries into qualifications or references, if appropriate.
Given the evolving work pass landscape, organisations should monitor the latest updates from the Government and calibrate their policies and procedures accordingly.
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